Manic Street Preachers' new album signals their return to a musical militancy, writes Ed Power
In the glory days of Britpop, the Manic Street Preachers stood moodily apart. While Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher were busily wrapping British music in the Union Jack and shamelessly pinching The Beatles' best ideas, these earnest sons of the Welsh valleys had rather grander ambitions. They were trying to change the world.
"I'm a history and politics graduate so that's what I've always written songs about," says Nicky Wire, the Manics' bassist and firebrand lyricist. "In 1996, I remember playing a university somewhere in the north of England. We were doing a song called Slash and Burn, about deforestation in Latin America, and as I looked out over the venue, I saw all of these kids in zip-up tops pogoing as if they were in the Parklife video. At that moment, I knew we had in-filtrated the system - which is the best place to be, if you're trying to get a message across."
The Manics released their first album, Generation Terrorists, in 1991 (they threatened to split if it failed to sell a million copies - it didn't, but they stayed together anyway). However, the commercial break-through didn't come until 1996, 12 months after the suspected suicide of their guitarist Richey Edwards (his body has never been recovered and his fate remains a mystery).
"I understand why Richey became a bit of a cult figure after he disappeared:' says Wire. "He was one of my oldest friends - we'd played football together as seven-year-olds. I was never really upset that people latched onto him afterwards. That's what happens in rock'n'roll As kids, I'm sure we felt the same about Jim Morrison and last Curtis (the Joy Division singer who hanged himself in 1980). Rock stars who die young have always seemed glamorous."
Today, Wire can scarcely conceal his good humour - the Manics have just romped to the top of the charts with their eighth studio album, Send Away the Tigers.
Perched on a sofa in his rural Wales home, Wire is almost giddy with delight. "After the last one, we wondered if we'd have a caner to come back tor he says, wincing at the memory of 2004's commercially disastrous Lifeblood.
"There's no getting around the fact that it's nice to be liked. When we found out that the album had gone top five in the UK, and that all of our concerts were selling out, well, we were thrilled. No matter how long you are in the game, that feeling never goes away. It's great to know people appreciate your music."
Sitting down to write Tigers (the title is from a quote by British comedian Tony Hancock, in reference to his battle with alcohol) the Manic, trio of Wire, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore had a simple goat to create a record that reconnected with their younger, more militant selves.
"We made a bargain: if a song didn't give goosebumps, it wouldn't make the album," says Wire. "With the last album, we had too many songs. We over-thought the process. This time, we tried to get back to the stuff we did in the old days."
As middle-age looms - all of the Manic: are now within tipping distance of 40 - things can go either one of two ways for a band, says Wire. "Either you accept you're not going to scale the sort of heights you did in the past, and settle for writing music that you find personally satisfying, or you lash out against it. You fight that process. You try to stay relevant. We chose the second option."
Two songs on Send Away the Tigers, Rendition and Imperial Bodybags, ad-dress Britain's disastrous adventures in Iraq. "We're still a very political group. Our politics informs everything we writer says Wire. "Some musicians think it's enough to do stuff like Live Earth. Yet listening to their songs you get no sense of political awareness what-soever. We think it's better to be directly political - to confront these issues in your music and hopefully influence the way your audience feels. Or at the wry least, leave them better informed."
In 2001, the Manics performed in Havana. Afterwards, they were ushered backstage for an audience with Cuban president Fidel Castro. "It was surreal," recalls Wire. "There was Castro, surrounded by all these generals and helpers. He was very polite. He thanked us for coming and said he hoped we en-joyed our stay It was one of those moments where you want to pinch yourself to see if its really happening."
Self-proclaimed "old school socialists" though they were, the Manics went to Cuba with few illusions. "The place seemed to be stuck in the '70s," remembers Wire. "All the cars, all the decor - the entire country looked 30 years be-hind the times. That said, there are a lot of things in Cuba that function very well. The health care system, for instance. Their education system is excel-lent, too. People leave school speaking three languages. These things are never black and white."
Although they remain close, today the Manics mostly only see each other when they are recording or touring. Otherwise, they lead separate lives (Wire is married and his wife is expecting their second child). "When I'm in the band I see myself as 'Nicky Manic', this slightly fantastical rock'n'roll character. I think we're a bit like the Ramones," he says. "We assume these identities on the road. It's important you keep that cartoon element in what you do. The whole idea of having a career in rock'n'roll is, if you think about it, completely ridiculous. Realising that is, I think, what has kept us sane all these years."